daily preciousness

Friday, September 16, 2005

I know what it means.

The song has always been a personal favorite. And it's always made me a little nostalgic. "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" is a classic of jazz. And it has given many a transplanted Louisianian a lump in the throat. No more so than in recent days.

So, as a personal tribute to a world-class city, I would like to explain what New Orleans means to me. What this city of moonlight and water has given… What it nearly took away… What it means to miss her so dearly…

My first memories of the city involve muppets. The City Children's Museum had a wild and wooly exhibit of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Big Bird and the rest of the bunch. My parents took my brother and me to saw how all the Henson magic worked.

It was spectacular to peek behind the veil like that. What a glimpse that was! The sheer magic of bringing those characters to life inspired me. I remember going home and making puppets out of socks, paper bags -- anything. My brother, my best pal Christina and I must have made puppet shows for months afterwards, because I remember the exhibit with the crystal clarity of Something that Really Mattered.

Not far from the children's museum, in City Park, there was a little train that pulled a train of a dozen or so cars. My nostrils would fill with the smell of oil and smoke as the train began to move. The tracks wound around the city park. An old man in denim and gold-rimmed glasses was the conductor. He had to sit on the little engine car with his knees jutting out at an awkward angle. I remember it had a loud, high-pitched bell. He rang it as he called, "All aboard!"

I vividly recall being jealous of the children who dwelled in the houses and apartments that faced the park. "The kids that live here must get to ride the train all the time -- and that's not fair at all!" I remember thinking. What wonderful logic.

My first trip on a real train took me from Baton Rouge all the way across Lake Pontchartrain. I remember thinking that the water must go on forever. "Is that the ocean, Mama?" I remember asking. I had never seen a body of water that vast before. Nor had I been on a bridge that went that far. Miles and miles later, t steady noise of the train must have put me to sleep. I rested in my mother's lap. By the time I awoke, we had just pulled into the station.

Tiny mountains of powdered sugar couldn't hide the glory beneath them. The little pillow-shaped bounty beneath the snowy white sugar could never hide for long. After a meal with Dad, we would board the riverboat and listen to the jazzy calliope echo off the waterfront.

The World’s Largest Ferris Wheel stopped one day. With me on it. It was the 1984 World’s Fair. Yikes!

Dad had scored us free tickets to go. I remember being so incredibly proud of him. His black and white pictures won us three or four visits to the World’s Fair for the whole family. It was amazing. I remember seeing the Space Shuttle, awesome, spectacularly huge and powerful.

There wasn’t much of a breeze that day. The steamy river air was still and stagnant. After what seemed like half an hour baking at the top of the Ferris Wheel, they finally let us down. Was it a cigarette break? A labor dispute? A broken part? Nope. A very fat passenger had somehow gotten herself stuck in the seat and she couldn’t get out. They had to call the police to help pry Mistress Lard out. Thanks a lot, lady!

Many years later, I would celebrate my first New Year’s Eve as an adult in the French Quarter, popping noisemakers and wearing silly hats with friends. We sipped Irish coffees and leaned over the French metal work of the Quarter balconies. I was 18 and so happy to be an adult. I kissed Joel, my very first long-term sweetheart, for good luck that year. The joy of that evening is balanced by the shock of just a few years later when a mugger got his wallet and shot him in the chest in the same part of the Quarter. It happened just two years after that wonderful New Year’s kiss. He very nearly died.

New Orleans did not take him.

But now, New Orleans is hurt. And we now know what it means to miss her.

These memories, good and bad, form a composite of the city in my mind. It's a city of moonlight and water, seductive and treacherous. I hope that we can revive her. Until then, I will miss her.

Part of being from Louisiana is helping people understand what this city means. And I hope that this glimpse at her will make you understand just how special of a city she is.


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